"Bob Levey speaking."

"Bob, this is a reader of yours. I don't want to give you my name because I'm scared. I mean, I haven't been this scared since I was a little kid, and that's quite a while ago."

"Ma'am, I'm a newspaper columnist, not a KGB agent. I'm not going to force you to give me your name. Why don't you just tell me what the matter is?"

"I got this phone call last night and I don't know what to do about it. I mean, who knows who the people really were? I've got a daughter, and my husband wasn't home, and . . . "

"Who did the person say he was, ma'am?"

"It was a she. Some woman who said she was from a home security firm. You know, they were trying to sell me one of those home burglar alarm systems."

"I've been there. Too many times. What was the gimmick this time?"

"It wasn't any gimmick. It was the way the woman started. She asked me, 'Do you feel safe in your home?'"

"I hope you didn't say no."

"No, no, I said yes. And most of the time, I do. You know, my husband used to be a football player, and I think he could handle anybody who tried to walk in here. But then this woman said, 'You do? You really feel safe in your home? In this day and age? With all the crime out there?'"

"She was trying to scare you into signing on the bottom line, huh?"

"I guess so. And I didn't do it. But my husband said later I should have hung up because it might have been a burglar trying to figure out if I already had an alarm system on the house."

"I doubt that that was it, ma'am. If a burglar wanted to know that, he'd just ask you, straight up, whether you have an alarm system or not. Not too many burglars want to frighten you in the bargain. They're frightened enough themselves."

"Well, do you think they just wanted to find out if somebody was home?"

"That's a lot more likely, ma'am. But I don't think that was it in this case, either. If that was all the caller wanted to know, she'd have had her answer the minute you picked up the receiver and said, 'Hello.' She wouldn't have needed to pound on you with all that 'You do?' stuff."

"By the way, what do you think about home burglar [alarm] systems, Bob?"

"Hey, wait a minute, ma'am. This is The Washington Post, not Consumer Reports. All I can tell you about is my own experience."

"I'd be interested."

"OK. We've found that the system we inherited when we bought our house is twice the trouble it's worth. Funny lights are going on all the time when you shut the front door. I can't remember if that means the system is off or on. I live in fear that we're going to wake up the whole neighborhood some night by taking out the garbage. Some people I know hate the systems so much that when they go on vacation, they don't even turn the thing on."

"OK, you've convinced me, Bob. But what about the sales pitch? Isn't there something I can do about this? I mean, isn't there a law about scare tactics?"

"Sure, there's a law governing harassment over the phone. Same law that puts heavy breathers in jail. But you and I are both going to be greatgrandparents before there's a law preventing sales people from trying every tactic under the sun to make a sale."

"Same thing as those calls that are generated by computers, right?"

"Right. You and I might be driven nuts by them. And there might be a law on the books that vaguely prevents them. But the phone company always says there's nothing they can do to stop someone from programming a computer to dial every phone number in the world. And there's nothing the phone company can do to stop some saleswoman from scaring you to death, I'm afraid. Unless you want Ma Bell listening in on your conversations."

"I don't think I'd like that, Bob."

"I didn't really think you would."

"So I guess I should just hang up next time, huh?"

"That's what I'd suggest. I know it's no fun to be short with people. But if you don't protect yourself, who's going to?"